“I’ve just been told I have to work from home due to the coronavirus,” my friend says. “Do you have any advice?”
I’ve had this conversation more times than I can count over the last week as my colleagues shuffle their priorities and adapt to the new paradigm COVID-19 has brought. My friends are looking to me because I’ve been working full time from home since before video conferencing was even a thing. In 2006, I set up my first home office as I became the SEO Manager for an agency based in New York, who miraculously hired me even though I lived (and still live) in my home state of North Carolina.
Since that time, video conferencing has become a daily occurrence for most people even in offices, so to say the technology has improved would be an understatement. But if you’re working from home for a long period of time, sitting with your laptop on your couch while binging Netflix is not going to fly. You need to set up some space, some structure, and some rules to be successful.
Identifying Your Work from Home Space
Whether you have a house like I do, or a small apartment, you need to designate your “work space.” If you have the ability, a separate room with a door is your best strategy, but if you’re in a tiny NY studio apartment, even designating your fold out laundry board as your space is fine. The key is that you need to identify a space that is only used for work during work hours.
Designating Work Hours
You also need to determine what your work hours will be. If you’re working full time from home for a company that normally works 8-5, then your work hours should be 8-5. But if you have to flex your time to deal with children or your spouse needing to work too (more on that later), then so be it. The key is that you designate that time as work time, and arrive and depart your “office” every day just like you would a regular office.
Get Dressed, Brush Your Hair
If you’re working from home for the first time, it can be tempting to think those of us who do it full time roll out of bed and work all day in our pajamas. And some people do with success. For me, I get up, brush my hair, get dressed, eat breakfast, and then “leave” to my office. Now getting “dressed” might just entail switching from pajamas to leggings, and rarely involves makeup, but just the act of changing clothes symbolically means I’m going to work. If you normally work out or meditate or whatever in the morning, keep doing it. The key is to stick as close to a routine as possible.
Build In Break Time
Working from home is quiet. You may find without a co worker to pop by your desk to chat or to go to lunch with, that you miss lunch entirely. While this might make you very productive, it isn’t healthy. So decide when your breaks will be, and get up and leave your “office” during those times. At first, you may need to set a reminder on your calendar for these. (I can hear my husband now… “Jen, it’s 3pm and you haven’t eaten lunch yet!” It’s true that I don’t always practice what I preach.)
Set Your Home Office Up for Success
Now that we’ve covered the must haves, here are some tools you might want to have. Your mileage may vary, but if you’re reading this article, it’s likely you don’t have great tools for a home office. So I thought I’d share what works for me. My go-to accessories are:
This USB-C hub and docking station from Plugable*. Because I travel a lot, my primary computer is a small laptop. I didn’t want to have to change computers when I got home, so I got this universal docking station. I think it’s great because I can plug everything into it, and then “docking” consists of a single plug into my laptop. I currently have two monitors, a wireless keyboard and mouse, a webcam, and a headset plugged into this docking station at all times.
While I’m on the subject, you’ll need a decent headset. This Logitech headset with mic* is plug and play and works really well. It’s got this feature on the cord where I can mute, unmute, and change volume with the press of a button, which is excellent on video calls when I need to mute quickly.
The other non-negotiable is a decent web camera*. I really like Logitech products, so I bought this one for my office… it has a built in mic (which I don’t use b/c I use the headset) but it produces really excellent video quality and the camera itself is adjustable so you can point it away from whatever junk might be stacked up in your background (In my case, my office doubles as the kids’ craft room on weekends). Just add one of those webcam covers for privacy when you’re not using it, or (if you don’t have one handy) fold a post-it note over the top.
Tools of the Trade for Working From Home
Now that we’ve covered hardware, let’s talk about software. Your company may have specific products you have to use, like Skype for Business or WebEx. Or you might find that the number of “seats” your company purchased with their license are now inadequate to meet the demand of everyone working from home. In that case, here are some free tools that work well:
- Uberconference. I swear by this tool for video conferencing. It’s fast, easy, and effective for a quick screen share. But it’s not super secure – you have to pay attention to who “joins” the call. And you can’t record screens without upgrading, although you can record audio.
- FreeConferenceCall. Another simple, free option. But only for conference calls, not screen sharing. The benefit of this tool over Uberconference is that the call in numbers are international.
- Trello. I use this tool to keep up with my to-dos. It’s free and with the mobile app and the email to board features, it does everything I need. But there are tons of tools like this and you may already be beholden to one for the office.
- Slack. I personally don’t love this tool, but I definitely see the appeal. It creates a much better alternative to instant messaging, because history is searchable and you can set up different spaces for different projects and teams.
- GChat. I use Google Chat as my instant messaging tool, but that’s mainly because I don’t have my own team, just some contractors that I work with regularly. The key here, especially if you’re just starting out freelance or consulting, is to use a different Google account. Again, I have my personal gmail and my work GSuite accounts. I try to stay out of the personal gmail during work hours because I find myself distracted updating the kids’ soccer schedule or something like that instead of working.
Things That Might Seem Wrong That Are Actually Very Right
Social Media and Working from Home
Social media is an essential element of working from home. Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, or Slack… whatever you use is important for this time. Working from home can feel very isolating. At first, it will probably feel like a breath of fresh air, but as the days and weeks roll on, it can get lonely. Use social media to connect with people; to keep up with the news; to de-compress. The trick with social media and working from home is that you have to limit it. You need to do what works for you – for me, I check in on things in the morning, at lunch time, and in the late afternoon. Otherwise I keep social windows closed. Without anyone watching over you, it can be hard to self-regulate. When I notice myself slipping, I’ll grab a timer from the kitchen and set myself 10 or 15 minute time limits for my social check ins.
Turning Off Your Mobile Phone
Note, I’m not suggesting you turn it off completely, but if you’re working from home and getting notifications like you normally might at work (especially if you’re typically in a lot of meetings), those incessant dings or vibes can be very distracting. You may want to adjust some of your notifications during this time.
Turning Off Notifications on Your Computer
If you’re using a different computer for your work from home time than you normally would use in the office, you may need to adjust some notifications there too. Turn off in-browser and in-app social notifications. Disconnect from apps you use for fun, like Netflix or Hulu. Don’t allow the distractions in.
Turning Away Visitors and Calls
While door to door salespeople and the Mormons will probably not be visiting houses as regularly during the virus outbreak, the two things I noticed most when I started working from home were that the house phone (if you have one) rings a lot with telemarketers, and people come to the door a lot more than you would expect. I solved these two issues by moving the house phone out of my space and turning the ringer down (my family knows if they need me during the work day to call on my work line -AKA Google voice). For the door, I bought this little plaque* that now sits under my doorbell. Sometimes sales people still ring it anyway, but it’s cut down on the interruptions significantly.
Doing Little Things Around The House During the Workday
When I take my breaks, I do sometimes do things like fold a load of laundry, or empty the dishwasher. Being able to get these things done during the day makes the house run a lot more smoothly. It’s not a bad thing as long as you stick to your 10 or 15 minute break time that you set for yourself.
Turning on the TV
Nope, just kidding. Don’t do this. Leave your TV off. Don’t start playing a video game. Time passes far too quickly when you’re doing these things, and it’s way too easy to say to yourself, “I’ll just play for 30 minutes and then not take my next break.” Don’t test your will power like this. Trust me. I don’t even watch news on the TV; I’ve set up an Alexa skill to “Tell me the news.” It runs for 7-10 minutes while I clean up my lunch, and then ends. Alexa actually says “That’s all for now,” which is my cue to disconnect and get back to work.
Some Other Pitfalls of Working from Home
- Don’t deal with bills and home issues during the work day unless it’s on one of your breaks. I have two manilla folders in my office. All bills and health insurance and other home stuff go in one; the other one is for work papers. By physically separating them, I don’t get tempted to do non work things.
- Don’t think you can WFH with your kids in the room. If you’re stuck because schools are out (a reality I’m facing very soon), then try to plan short bursts during the day for them to be out of the house – even if it’s just in the yard or at the playground – or for them to play video games or watch a movie (depending on age) so that you can get quiet work done. Plan rote tasks like reporting or administrative work for when you know they’ll be distracting you. You may also find that you need to work at night sometimes to do things that you can’t concentrate on when they’re around. But schedule that time and give yourself the same amount of time “off work” during the day.
- Don’t work around the clock. Set your working hours and stick to them as closely as possible. You’ll be happier and your family will run more smoothly.
- “Leave” your office at the designated time. Just like you would leave the physical office to beat traffic or pick a kid up from daycare or meet your spouse for dinner, LEAVE. It is too easy if you work from home to work all the time, and that’s not healthy.
- Get outside at least once a day. Get some sunlight, fresh air, and outdoor sounds. It’s restorative.
- Make only as much coffee as you need in the morning. Drink your one or two cups, and then dump the rest. Switch to water. It’s too easy to keep drinking coffee when you don’t have to get up and go to the “breakroom” to get it.
Do what works for you. All of the above is advice I’ve gleaned from 14 years of working from home. Just know that working from home takes discipline, structure, and scheduling. If you do it well and prove to your employer (or yourself) that you can be successful, you may find that it will afford you more flexibility when the virus crisis has passed.
Good luck, stay well.
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